First World War centenary: Wanstead woman shares soldier uncle’s tragic tale
- Credit: Archant
The outbreak of the First World War heralded a wave of patriotic fervour in summer 1914, with Britain’s men, young and old, smelling the sweet scent of adventure, with the dash of danger they craved.
Fresh-faced jeweller’s apprentice Bill Morrison, 18, was among those to first answer the call, leaving behind his poverty-stricken childhood for pastures new with Lord Kitchener’s volunteer force.
The private went on to fight on the Western Front, battling through campaigns such as the Somme, Armentières and Loos.
But far from the glory and honour promised to the troops, Bill had nothing to show for the war save a broken body and spirit.
And, unable to come to terms with his injuries and the unimaginable horrors he had faced, two years after the war ended, Bill took his own life.
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His niece Dierdre Morrison, 66, of Wanstead, known as Jackie for her middle name Jacqueline, said: “It’s a terribly sad story. What he went through... It must have been horrendous.
“How could they come back and carry on after what they had seen?”
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Born in July 1896, Bill was one of seven surviving siblings and lived with his parents William and Ellen in Russell Street, Battersea.
Life was hard for the “exceedingly poor” family, who had also lived in Vauxhall and later moved to Clapham.
Bill became a jeweller’s apprentice in 1911, but three years later he was swept up by the tide of war and eventually left for France on September 9, 1915, with the 10th (Service) Battalion of the Alexandra, Princess of Wales’ Own Yorkshire Regiment.
A birthday card to his mother arrived at the family home the following day, with Ellen not knowing if she would ever see her son again.
Her eldest son, Frederick, was already serving as a leading stoker in the Royal Navy, having joined in 1913.
Bill made it through his first year of service, but in 1916 he was severely wounded. It is believed he was hit by a shell blast during the Somme campaign.
Half of one of his legs was blown off and shrapnel from the weapon became embedded in his head.
He was discharged on December 16, 1916.
He received the Silver War Badge – given to those no longer fit for service because of their wounds, so they would not be handed white feathers; used as a symbol of cowardice.
Bill married in 1918, although it seemed to be an unhappy union, and fell back into whatever semblance of his old life remained.
But the scars of the war lingered, possibly through post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Bill came home physically and mentally broken,” said Jackie.
“You think, what were they doing sending those people over there?
“When you read the regimental diaries, you feel you are there with them. It was so rainy at the Somme that they couldn’t even get the stretcher people out there to get to the wounded and they thought they had destroyed the wire, but people were hanging on it.”
On a Sunday in August 1920, Bill, 24, travelled from Battersea to Warren Wood Hill, Loughton, and ended his life, swallowing a bottle of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide).
Bill had destroyed all his personal documents and if it had not been for his Silver War Badge, he would have been buried as an unknown.
In a journal he wrote three years later, Bill’s younger brother Walter, Jackie’s father, described making a wooden cross for his grave and wrote that Bill’s life had been “broken up by this war”.
“My father was a little boy, at 10 he was painting up a wooden cross,” said Jackie.
“I could get tearful talking about it, it makes me think about how this affected my family.
“The First World War still affects my generation. I know I didn’t know Bill, but he’s part of my history.”
Brother’s childhood tales
Jackie’s father Walter was just 10 when his brother Bill killed himself.
Three years later, he wrote a journal documenting some of his childhood experiences, including tales of the poverty his family lived in.
Walter describes how his hands were covered in chilblains and his face in sores, the latter Jackie believes was likely down to malnutrition.
He also talks about his parents’ break-up and reconciliation, as well as his father’s death in 1923.
An extract about his father reads: “I was only a little upset at the time, it seemed like I was hardened to the harsh treatment of life.”
To get by, Walter and younger brother George, the baby of the family, held down a number of jobs.
Walter was a grocer’s boy, baker’s boy and paper boy.
Recalling memories of conversations with her father, Jackie said he even delivered newspapers to playwright Noel Coward in Belgravia.
But the most touching extracts in the journal centre on Bill.
One wartime entry reads: “I can still see the times when the Boy Scouts ran round the streets shouting, ‘Take cover!’ and the people scampering off to the nearest place of refuge and the sigh of relief from all when the bugles announced the all-clear.
“One night, there was an air raid.
“It kept me awake all night and the dropping of a bomb nearby rattled the house as though it were a matchbox.
“I learned afterwards that my brother Bill stood on the step of the house all night, thoroughly enjoying it when a piece of shrapnel fell at his feet.
“It still makes a nice, ugly ornament for our fireplace today and a reminder of a life that was broken up by this war.”
Another entry describes Walter making a wooden cross for his brother’s grave. He painted it “jet black” and marked Bill’s name on it in enamel.